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Play: It’s the Way Young Children Learn

— Action Alliance for Children
Updated on Jul 19, 2010

That’s why many parents, anxious for their children to succeed in school, want early care and education programs to have children sit at tables using work sheets, drills, and flash cards to learn letters and numbers and even starting to read, add, and subtract.

But preschoolers learn differently from school-age children: play is essential to early learning. Play is the main way children learn and develop ideas about the world. It helps them build the skills necessary for critical thinking and leadership. It's how they learn to solve problems and to feel good about their ability to learn.

Children learn the most from play when they have skilled teachers who are well-trained in understanding how play contributes to learning.

Most child development experts agree that play is an essential part of a high-quality early learning program. Play is not a break from learning - it's the way young children learn.

High-quality preschools provide lasting benefits

High-quality preschool and child care programs have lasting benefits. Three studies, which followed children for many years, showed that taxpayers saved at least $2.69 for every dollar spent on high-quality early learning programs, by reducing special education, law-enforcement, and other costs.

In all these programs, “child-initiated” activities were important—highly trained teachers used children’s interests and activities to guide learning. Kids got to choose from appropriate activities, rather than spending all their time following teachers’ instructions.

Several studies have shown that children learn more from educational activities that support their own interests and ideas. Some researchers have found evidence that too much teacher-directed activity undermines young children’s self-confidence and motivation to learn.

Play promotes school success in many ways

Researchers are finding more and more connections between children’s play and the learning and social development that helps them succeed in school. For example, pretend play helps children learn to think abstractly and to look at things from someone else’s perspective. Pretend play is also connected to early literacy, mathematical thinking, and problem-solving.

When children play:

  • They test their developing ideas with objects, people, and situations - the key ability for academic learning
  • They develop many kinds of skills together - physical, social, emotional, thinking, and language
  • They are doing things they are interested in, so they have a natural motivation to learn
  • They develop concepts and skills together. For example, as a child learns to write the letters in her name, she is also learning the concept that each letter represents a sound. And she is very motivated by the meaning—her own name! Children are more likely to remember skills and concepts they have learned by doing things that are meaningful to them
  • They learn from other children and develop social skills by playing together
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